|Classroom Environment||Lesson Structure||Assessment||Sample Comprehension Lessons|
Collaborative or independent practice is another important step along the continuum of student control. We give students the chance to apply what we’ve been teaching in text that they are reading or viewing for themselves. Our goal is that over time, and with many opportunities to practice, children will use all of the strategies we have taught them seamlessly, as they need them, to help them understand whatever and whenever they read.
Collaborative or Independent?
Teachers need to decide whether children will work in pairs or on their own. Some of the reasons we have students work in partners include:
- When some children need support in reading the text. In pairs, they can get help from their peers. Sometimes it is necessary to use text that some children can’t read independently in order to really apply the strategy.
- When we think the children will explore the strategy more fully if they work with a partner. Articulating their thinking to someone else often helps them to figure out what they are thinking.
- For motivation. Sometimes children are able to maintain their concentration better when reading and thinking involves social interaction.
- For practical reasons, such as availability of multiple texts, or allowing the teacher more time to spend with a set of partners than is possible with each individual child.
It’s important to note that help with decoding the text is not the only reason for collaboration. We have witnessed many times how children’s thinking may be deeper because they are talking about it, not just writing or drawing on their own.
Conversely, some reasons to choose independent practice include:
- When the task is more appropriate to independent work.
- When children have had several experiences with the strategy and we want to stretch them to work on their own.
- When we want to assess what each child is doing independently.
We can also sometimes leave the decision about working individually or with a partner to the children. Children often have preferences about working alone or with others, and it varies not only with the child but with the type of text and strategy. In one of the sample lessons, you will see that the first grade teacher originally planned for the students to work together. But the children were so intrigued by the assortment of books about animals that Ms. Blackwell had accumulated that most of them wanted their own book. The teacher wisely left this decision up to the children.
Choosing the Text
Another important decision for independent practice involves the text that children will use. Some options include:
- Continue with the text begun in the interactive read-aloud. With kindergarten students, or early in teaching any strategy to primary students, this is sometimes the best option. Independent practice becomes a way for children to pull together what they have learned and articulate it more fully as they write or draw. In teaching her first graders to distinguish interesting details from important information in the Determining Importance sample lesson, Ms. Blackwell anticipates that the children will not be ready after one lesson to transfer their thinking to different text. So she stays with the same text for independent practice.
- In nonfiction, sometimes we give children sections that we didn’t read aloud of the same text from the interactive read-aloud. Books with clear headings delineating subtopics are perfect for this approach. Kindergarten children might interact with one new page in a book about a specific animal, or a type of weather, or a habitat. Because children have already acquired background knowledge not only of the topic but also of the text structure and features of the book, it is a simpler task for them to transfer their use of strategies to new pages of the same text than to an entirely different book.
- Give students choices of texts. This approach is taken in several of the sample lessons. Choice is a powerful motivator and support for children. That motivation goes a long way towards sustaining their interest and attention as they work on their own. Often when the lesson is situated in a unit of study on a particular topic, children make choices within that topic. They are therefore able to share knowledge with each other that contributes to the entire class’s further understanding of the topic.
During independent or collaborative practice, the teacher’s main role is to confer with students. These conferences – short interactions we have with individual children or partners as they work – play a significant role in helping students be successful. Very brief conferences take place through all stages of the gradual release lesson; whenever kids turn and talk, the teacher is always circulating, listening, and probing. But it is during independent or collaborative practice that we have the greatest opportunities for conferring.
Learning to confer well is one of the most challenging parts of teaching a comprehension lesson. Think-alouds can be prepared ahead of time (hopefully they are!), but conferences need to be figured out on the fly, based on what the teacher is seeing and hearing from the students. Conferences need to be short and the teacher is simultaneously scanning the room to be sure all kids are involved while focusing on one or two in a conference.
The major purpose of conferring is to provide differentiated support for individual students to address their specific needs. This is our best time to truly teach – when we see what an individual child is doing and thinking, and can hone in on what will move that child forward. In addition, conferences help us informally assess in order to know how to build future lessons, with the whole class, small groups, or individual children.
The big question we want to keep in mind about conferring is: how do our interactions with kids support them to move towards independence? We can’t make sure they fully understand every sentence in a text, or correct spelling and punctuation, and those are not our goals in conferring. Rather, we work to reinforce or strengthen children’s independent use of strategies to further their understanding as they read. So we try to frame our conferences in ways that will leave them with actions they can take not only with reference to the specific text and assignment, but for future ones as well.
We do this by listening to and talking with the child and looking at their work in progress. We look for their strengths, helping them become conscious of strategic moves they are making so that they will repeat them in other texts. We teach to the child’s approximations or what he or she appears ready to do next. As teachers we are sometimes so tuned into students’ deficiencies that we have to retrain ourselves to actually notice their emerging strengths and build on them!
In each sample lesson, you will see great variety in children’s understandings of how to use the strategy when they are working on their own. In the inferring lesson, for example, some children needed help in figuring out how to make an inference, while others were moving from inferring about a specific line of a poem to inferring the big ideas of the poem as a whole. We do not expect every child to have the same level of competency at the end of a single lesson. Instead, we take notes on what they are able to do and use what we learn to plan for further instruction.
The language we use with children when we confer makes a huge difference. As in all our interactions throughout the lesson, we want conferences to be conversational and supportive, not evaluative and judgmental. We honor kids’ thinking at the same time as we help them take that thinking further. In the Questions to Consider for the Independent or Collaborative Practice segments of each sample lesson, we offer different ways to examine the language that the teachers use as they confer with children. The process of analyzing this language helps us to examine our own language more closely and work to make it more precise and purposeful.
See Assessment Module for more about conferring.